Series | Hard Reset
Do buildings have to be permanent?

Modular construction is like building with LEGOs on steroids. Here’s how it could transform our cities.

Watch on YouTube

We live in a world surrounded by homes, shopping centers, and office buildings built to withstand the test of time, but there’s a problem with this focus on permanence.

In our dynamic and ever-changing world, permanent structures often end up generating massive amounts of waste, whether through demolition or abandonment. In fact, global construction waste is expected to reach over two-billion tons per year by 2025.

That’s why modular construction, a sustainable building technique that dates back to the 1800s, is starting to pick up steam once again. 

What is Modular Construction?

The concept behind modular building is reminiscent of a popular childhood pastime: LEGO sets. The construction process involves transporting multiple prefabricated buildings (the “bricks”) which are connected on-site to form a complete structure.

The prefabricated sections are assembled away from the construction site and can be stacked in various configurations, such as end-to-end or stacked one on top of the other. Once the prefabricated modules have been placed, they’re conjoined to form one cohesive structure. It’s like LEGOs on steroids, using cranes for assembly rather than your fingertips.

And because of the ease with which these structures can be disassembled and transported elsewhere for reuse, modular construction could lead to exponential increases in efficiency in the building industry, if it becomes more widespread. This idea isn’t new, but recent unfoldings in technology, economic demands, and shifting mindsets are opening the door to a new wave of interest. 

The Benefits of Modular Building

Modular construction takes a radically different approach to building. Because much of the process takes place in a factory beforehand, projects can be completed in half the amount of time that traditional methods take, where all work is completed on-site. Factory-based manufacturing helps reduce delays from typical obstacles like bad weather and vandalism.

This time savings means a faster return on investment for landowners. And because prefab buildings use lightweight materials that are less expensive, they have the potential to deliver momentous cost savings. In the European and U.S. markets alone, modular construction could lead to an annual savings of up to $22 billion.

Perhaps most importantly, modular construction is more sustainable than traditional construction methods. Modular structures can be disassembled and relocated for new uses, minimizing the demand for raw materials and the energy expended to produce those materials. Additionally, building in a factory helps eliminate waste. Inventory can be more easily controlled and building materials protected from damage.

A few more perks — a primarily indoor construction environment leads to improved safety and less accidents for construction crews. It also results in improved air quality within the buildings themselves, as a factory-controlled setting eradicates the potential of moisture getting trapped within walls.

The primary drawback of modular buildings is less old-fashioned character or charm in their outward appearance, but that doesn’t mean the structures aren’t aesthetically pleasing. And despite a common misconception, modular buildings are just as structurally sound as traditional ones — they’re required to meet the same building codes. 

iMod Structures Lead the Way

Although modular construction has yet to be embraced by the masses, one company is paving the way. iMod Structures builds reconfigurable, relocatable buildings all over the world, from Virginia to Guam to Haiti. The company was founded in 2009 by John Diserens and Craig Severance, both former real estate investors.

Their factory, a 100-year-old structure where U.S. naval submarines were previously built, is located on Mare Island in Vallejo, California. iMod’s frames are manufactured in Mexico and China, but at the factory they’re equipped with walls, windows, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.

The building process includes transporting the outfitted frames to a construction site, offloading them with a crane, sticking them together (just like LEGOs), and of course, setting up plumbing and electrical.

The secret to iMod’s efficiency is that they only produce a single, rectangular-shaped frame. Its shape and size makes it easy to transport while also providing versatility. For example, the structures are currently being used as classrooms that can adapt to meet the changing demographics of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“Typically, it would take nine to 15 months to manufacture a classroom out in the field,” explains Mike McKibbin, the head of operations for iMod. “We’re doing that in twelve days.”

Once the demand for classrooms in a given region dissipates, iMod can simply disassemble the structure, load up their frames, and transport them elsewhere for reuse, without having to waste materials over the long term.

“We don’t want our buildings to ever end up in a landfill. Ever,” says Reed Walker, head of production and design. “We want to take that system and use it again and again and again.”

While iMod’s capabilities are already impressive, they’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible. What if entire communities could be relocated and repurposed based on population changes?

Does any new construction really need to be permanent? The utilitarian benefits of modular construction hold the potential to transform our cities and make the construction industry more sustainable as a whole.

Subscribe to Freethink for more great stories